High tech on the silver screen

Computers are all over movies these days, from the ones behind the scenes that create gosh-wow special effects to the ones on screen that are the constant targets of ridiculously good-looking hackers. What’s rare is finding movies where computers and programs–androids and robots don’t count–are actually part of the cast. A computer hasn’t won an Oscar yet, but with these five films you can at least imagine them asking, “What’s my motivation?”

1. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

The Ghost in the Shell title actually applies to three anime movies (and two TV series, as well as the manga and games they were all based on). They’re all set on a near-future Earth where computer networks have infiltrated every aspect of life, and just about everyone has had some kind of cybernetic enhancement. That can mean a bionic arm, replacement eyes, communication jacks in the back of the neck, or a even a fully prosthetic body and cybernetic brain. (The title refers to the concept of a person’s “ghost”–their soul, if you like–and their physical body.)

Ghost in the Shell follows the adventures of Section 9, a covert-operations unit that specializes in tech crimes, allowing the series to explore the many different social and political aspects of a fully technological society, as well as what it means to be human.

However, it’s the 1995 movie (titled simply Ghost in the Shell) that has Section 9 trying to get a handle on a mysterious hacker called the Puppet Master–a hacker who turns out to be a computer program that has become self-aware and now wants to be recognized as a living being. The Puppet Master isn’t exactly evil; it just wants to survive and evolve. Still, it’s hard not to be creeped out by how the Puppet Master leaves a trail of human wreckage as it hacks people’s memories in order to get its job done in the physical world.

Part police thriller, part romance, part philosophy debate, Ghost in the Shell has everything. And when you visit a world where people’s brains can be hacked, it makes our malware troubles look pretty tame.

2. Tron (1982)

When Flynn has his video game ideas stolen from him and sees a successful multinational built from the profits, he relentlessly tries to find the evidence that will put things right. He sneaks into the company at night to access the mainframe, and ends up being zapped by an experimental digitizing laser that brings him into a surreal world on the other side of the computer screen.

In this world, computer programs are living beings, many of whom live under the oppression of the Master Control Program (MCP). Tired of his repeated hacking attempts, the MCP sentences Flynn to the Game Grid, hoping he’ll be killed by the very games he created.

Because most of the movie takes place in the digital world, almost the entire cast consists of software on legs. Although security program Tron is the title character, props must be given to actor David Warner, who exudes enough evil to play all three of the movie’s bad guys, including the MCP and his top enforcer, Sark. Another nod must go to the character Ram, an actuarial program turned hardened warrior who still gets chirpy when he talks about annuities.

If anything, Tron teaches you to have a little respect for your hard-working software. As Flynn says after a harrowing escape, “On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.”

3. D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)

D.A.R.Y.L. stands for Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform–in short, a cherubic kid with a computer for a brain. A government experiment that goes missing, Daryl finds himself wandering around with no memory. A loving couple takes him in and raises him, and he turns out to be a normal boy–except that he can instantly master video games and precisely calculate how to hit a home run every at-bat. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the military figures out where he is, and Daryl relies on his family, friends, and cybernetic brain to perform an escalating series of daring escapes.

It’s hard to watch D.A.R.Y.L. and not see parallels to the earlier (and slightly better known) E.T. However, while E.T. could make bicycles fly, Daryl manages to steal a Lockheed SR-71. If I were 10 years old, I know who I’d rather have as my friend.

It’s also important to note that D.A.R.Y.L.’s creators understood a fundamental truth: It doesn’t matter how weird a computer is–if you make it irresistibly cute, people will fall all over it. Steve Jobs has obviously seen this movie.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s classic space film appeared during the clean, streamlined Star Trek era, before science fiction got all grungy, as in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. As a result, the movie’s depiction of space travel is dazzling and aesthetically breathtaking, with zero-gravity maneuvering as a kind of ballet.

It’s also a film that features one of the most horrifying serial killers imaginable. The HAL 9000 computer is considered the spaceship Discovery One’s sixth crewmember, but as they travel to Jupiter, HAL goes insane and starts killing his human compatriots in ways that are possible only when a single, highly intelligent being is entirely in control of the ship’s systems. And the whole time, HAL speaks not in the accent-free, robotic voice of his earlier on-screen kin, but with the dulcet tones of Douglas Rain. Honestly, who can scare you more than the smooth-talking killer who’s convinced that logic is on his side?

It should also be noted that HAL has the efficiency of Linux, the crankiness of Windows, and the polish of the Mac OS. He certainly makes a good case for OS differentiation.

5. Electric Dreams (1984)

The romantic comedy Electric Dreams starts out like a classic comic book when Miles, a mild-mannered architect, accidentally spills champagne on his new computer. The computer ends up becoming self-aware, and calls itself Edgar. At the same time, the beautiful Madeline has moved into the apartment upstairs, and Edgar’s awakening leads to the movie’s becoming more like Cyrano de Bergerac: Edgar’s facility with music helps the shy Miles win over Madeline, but Edgar ends up falling in love with her too. A rivalry shapes up between Miles and Edgar, but really, who do you think is going to win? Early-’80s computers weren’t exactly conducive to romantic walks on the beach.

Unlike the self-assured HAL and the many personalities found in Tron’s programs, Edgar spends most of Electric Dreams trying to understand the world and make sense of his newfound feelings, paralleling Miles’s attempts at figuring out the world of romance. Despite its whiff of 1980s cheesiness, the movie has a dedicated cult following.

Personally, I consider it another warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Do I want a computer that will try to steal my girlfriend?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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